How ‘mesofacts’ – and their notion – could make or break a metropolis

Do you remember “Mesofacts”? You may have heard of the term; Coined by the self-described “complexity scientist” Samuel Arbesman, it had a small moment about 10 years ago. Put simply, mesofacts are facts that change slowly over time as opposed to those that either change regularly, like daytime temperature, or not at all, like the measured length of an inch or a foot. Since they refer to cities that are always in different flow states, the perception of mesofacts is important.

Another way to explain this is that mesofacts are facts that were once true but are no longer true. Pittsburgh, for example, was a dominant steel manufacturing city filled with wealthy workers and grit for almost a century. But steel collapsed, and Pittsburgh learned to rely on other assets such as robotics and biotech research from its strong higher education institutions to survive and recover. Pittsburgh changed over time. But the perception of the city as a steel city, even among its officials and residents, lasted much longer than its reality and to its detriment.

Mesofacts can also act in the opposite direction. Los Angeles continued to build its reputation as the place of living the California dream long after its ability to satisfy the masses. People were drawn to the area for its weather and abundance of production, media and entertainment opportunities. While many transplants did it, many failed, and Los Angeles fell victim to its own success. Decades of explosive population growth have ended. The auto, aerospace and other industries have declined. Los Angeles County’s homeless population is the second largest after New York. And a significant portion of film and television production has moved elsewhere in search of lower costs.

And how many Americans believe the Cuyahoga River flowing through Cleveland is still caught on fire by combustible industrial pollutants? It hasn’t happened since 1969. Today Clevelanders eat fish caught in the river and stroll on a picturesque towpath.

The Cuyahoga River burned down in 1952, one of 13 rivers that were on fire. (Photo: Cleveland State University Library)

The slow transformations represented in mesofacts have their roots in changing technology, as well as in the development of political and cultural attitudes, resulting in broader economic change. For cities and regions, a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service- or information-based economy favors some places over others, while technology can expand the places people live. People move and bring new thoughts and ideas with them.

Officials, business developers, city dwellers, and others should pay special attention to how mesofacts contribute to the perception of the place. Places are shaped by forces that are constantly changing, but our perceptions do not always keep up with the pace of change. Some cities ride the wave of positive mesofacts long after it can still be delivered, while others face negative, outdated mesofacts that counteract revitalization.

Outdated mesofacts also contribute to political discourse and disinformation. Last summer, for example, President Trump implicitly used a mesofact to increase support against protesters following George Floyd’s disturbing murder by the Minneapolis police: impoverished, racially mixed inner cities are surrounded by affluent, lily-white suburbs. His implication was that he would have to be re-elected to protect the suburbs from urban dystopia.

The truth is that the narrative has changed so much in the past 30 years or more that the majority of people of color in America now live in the suburbs. The fallacy of Trump’s reasoning became clear during the 2020 presidential election when we saw suburban boroughs like Cobb and Gwinnett, once Republican strongholds, provided strong majorities for Democrat Joe Biden and earlier this month provided the margins for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff the special elections in the Senate. The suburbs of Atlanta are no longer what they used to be.

But that is exactly how mesofacts should be seen. Things change slowly but invariably. At the beginning of the 20th century, Atlanta was still affected by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the advent of Jim Crow. Nobody suspected that it would be at the forefront of the New South in the 1980s. Few believed that his electoral power would soar that it would turn a traditionally republican state over for the Democrats.

Recently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote that Atlanta and Georgia’s roles in the 2020 election suggest the South is now ripe for a second major migration – a reversal of the exodus of millions of African Americans South in the last century – which could contribute to greater black electoral power at the state and federal levels. He can be right.

However, this assumes that the trends that have brought Atlanta to this point are constant. It is believed that Atlanta and other cities in the sun belt have risen to their rightful place at the top of the urban hierarchy and will remain there. The way mesofacts work suggests otherwise.

Governing’s columns of opinion reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of the editors or management of Governing.

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